We recently discussed the case of Emma Sulkowicz who gained fame as the “Mattress Girl” for her protest about the handling of her alleged rape by another Columbia student. Columbia not only cleared the male student,Paul Nungesser, of charges but the police refused to bring criminal charges. Columbia recently settled a civil action brought by the male student and reaffirmed that it found no evidence supporting discipline for sexual assault. Now, the Boston-based National Public Radio station is under fire for a story byNPR correspondent Tovia Smith that continued to refer to Sulkowicz as a “survivor” despite the countervailing findings of the university under the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard advocated by the Obama Administration. The reference also indicated that Nungesser had indeed raped her. While the declination to punish Nungesser by the school or the declination to prosecute him does not mean that no rape occurred, it does show that there was insufficient evidence against Nungesser who has always maintained his innocence.
The story for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” examined a new program called “restorative justice” at schools where the focus is on the harm done “and finding ways to repair it” instead of “judging or punishing the perpetrator.”
Sulkowicz, who carried around a mattress on campus as her protest, was referenced as a “survivor.”
Even under the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ interpretation of Title IX rules, established under then-President Barack Obama, involving a low “preponderance of the evidence” standard for adjudication, Sulkowicz’s complaint did not result in any punishment.
After the outcry, NPR added a clarification to the online version of the story (and it is also posted on the online transcript):
“This story refers to Emma Sulkowicz as a survivor of sexual assault, as she considers herself to be. The accused in her case was found not responsible by a campus adjudication process.”
The reaction of many ranged from deeper confusion to greater outrage. NPR was suggesting that merely calling yourself a rape survivor warrants the media to use that self-adopted description. However, that description says that someone else is a rapist and further detaches the reporter from confining reporting to known facts (or to use qualifers).
Critics were right to be upset. Even though Nungesser was not named in the piece, Sulkowicz and her comment were included, and no mention was made of the outcome of the accusations, even though she was described as a “survivor.”
Newsroom executives told me that they turned to Sulkowicz as an advocate and activist who could speak on how campuses resolve charges of sexual assault. The story did not include details because NPR specifically did not want to reopen the case.
But by calling her a “survivor” and including her comment, NPR did partially reopen the case, however inadvertently. NPR should have anticipated that her story would distract from the main thrust of the piece. It would have been better to find a different interviewee to express qualms about restorative justice in sexual assault cases.
Vickie Walton-James, NPR’s supervising senior editor for national news, agreed, telling me: “In retrospect, maybe she’s not the one we should have used, because she’s become a lightning rod. Her inclusion in the story has distracted from the broader issue of restorative justice.” She added, “It goes without saying there was no intent to be unfair here,” pointing to Smith’s “balanced and outstanding body of work on the issue of campus sexual assault.” Smith, she said (and I agree), “has been out front on the issue of due process rights of the accused and the fairness of campus proceedings.“
Notably, however, there is no criticism of the reporting or reporter beyond referring to this error as “inadvertent.” The deeper concern is with how such stories are reported and the general failure to afford the accused the same level of protection as the accuser. Accused parties are routinely named as alleged rapists while the names of the alleged victim are withheld. More generally, there has been a comparatively little attention to the due process concerns raised by the Obama Administration initiative.
It was good for NPR to address the issue and there should not be a pile on for the misuse of a single descriptive noun. However, the response reflects the frustration of some with coverage of this area.
What do you think?